The Descent of Justin Townes Earle

(This is a long one folks. Faint of heart turn back now.)

Now that we’re all able to take a deep breath after the Justin Townes Earle breakdown in Indianapolis and his subsequent tour cancellation and rehab stint, there’s a few things that need to be said, first and foremost being that with all the allegations and points of justification out there, and with legal matters pending, it is the responsibility of ALL of us to assume that Justin Townes Earle is innocent until he is proven guilty. That is his right, and our responsibility as citizens of a free society. We’ve all been touched by substance abuse at some point, and most have been touched by the ineptness and/or unfair slantings of the broken justice system. We all must hope that the proceedings are fair, and justice is served.

However some have used innocent until proven guilty to say that any information that has come out in public is either “rumor” or “bias.”  The opening shot in the court of public opinion was lobbed by Earle, when he said that Radio Radio could “Kiss his fucking ass!” on his Twitter feed. At that point, Radio Radio and the people involved have a right to defend themselves, and the public has a right to have all the information as its known presented to them in a fair manner.

Nothing is fact until proven in a court of law, but this is understood when you are reading things ahead of a trial. This situation is not a he said/she said either, because there were multiple witnesses to the events leading up to and during the JTE arrest, events that happened out in a public street, in a neighborhood where there were third party bystanders. “Rumor” is different than eyewitness accounts from verified sources unattached to the parties. It is a fact that JTE has been charged with assault, resisting arrest, and public intoxication. It is also a fact that these are just charges. But charges are not “rumor” and reporting them along with all other eyewitness accounts is not “bias,” and it is in no way either unethical, or unusual.

I also want to respond to some allegations that I, your lovable-huggable Triggerman, and my reporting on this website was slanted, or that I had a hidden agenda against Justin. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. If there is a slant, its because I am/was a Justin Townes Earle fan, and I have presented a time line below to illustrate how JTE went from being my most lauded artist of 2009, to an assault & battery suspect. One of the reasons my reporting might have appeared bias, is because I reported this story 36 hours before any other outlet, and because I had been critical of JTE in reviews and articles leading up to the incident. This all had to do with timing, and not a hidden agenda. Initially all the accounts were negative towards JTE, and it was only 12 hours after I initially reported the story that people came forward blaming a bad crowd for Justin’s behavior. Information was added to the story as it was made available and the sources verified.

Where I did wrong the great Saving Country Music reader is by not reporting JTE’s relapse and behavior towards others before this incident, even though I had been sitting on that information from multiple sources for months. Some might think this was an isolated event. An incident to this extent is isolated, but I was not shocked, I anticipated it. As a friend of mine reminded me when reading the story, I had predicted to him in June, “Mark my words, JTE is gonna be on the cover of People Magazine with a heroine needle sticking out of his arm,” a conversational way of showing my concern for both his meteoric rise in fame, and escalation of self-destructive behavior. I have a draft of an article entitled, “Justin Townes Earle Rising Too Fast?” that I started in June, and never published.

The reason I didn’t report it was because the sources of the information were sensitive, and I didn’t want to add fuel to the fire that was attempting to be doused by the right people. What gave me an opening is when he put out, in my opinion, a sub-par album.

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My JTE coverage started at Pickathon in August of 2009, when I saw him perform three times. In a review for Outlaw Magazine (under the ‘Live’ tab) I said:

When I got back from Portland’s Pickathon, I had a friend ask me point blank, “Who was the one artist that really made an impact on you?” I has seen over a dozen bands over the course of the weekend, but without hesitation, my answer to the question was ‘Justin Townes Earle.’

After his second performance I did a quick interview with him, and he was charming and polite. My next JTE coverage came when I named his 2009 release Midnight at the Movies my 2009 Album of the Year, saying:

There is nothing I take more serious then putting my name behind an album as being the best of any calendar year. I understand that Albums of the Year set a precedent, and will act like guideposts for future generations to come back and discover the music that came before. That is why after careful consideration, I believe that Justin Townes Earle’s 2009 album Midnight at the Movies is the best album in regards to creativity, quality, and significance.

Three months later at South by Southwest, I was shocked when I saw him perform. He looked completely wired, and the music was poor. I didn’t write a review for the show because I was so dumbfounded at what I had seen; a complete sea change in 6 months, and it appeared that drugs were involved from someone who was supposed to be sober. Later, in three separate incidents during SXSW, I heard “rumors” about JTE sobriety and behavior. I call them “rumors” because it was all second hand news, but in my review of Harlem River Blues posted two days before the incident, I alluded to my SXSW experience:

Earle was the talk … of SXSW. But there was also talk of JTE’s “problems” that would come up unprovoked when speaking with other artists and fans and such. What problems? I don’t know. They didn’t tell, and I didn’t ask. When I had talked to JTE in August, he’d mentioned his previous drug problems and had alluded that he was sober. Following his Twitter Tweets, that is clearly not the case now. Don’t know if JTE’s sobriety was the source of these “problems,” but the months after SXSW the whispers had yet to die down.

Many criticized me for questioning JTE sobriety, especially without any more solid evidence than a few posts on Twitter. This criticism came up again in the early stages after the Radio Radio incident. This actually wasn’t the first time I had mentioned that there was some concern about JTE. Back on June 29th, in an article called Who Will Be Country’s Next Savior? (where I named JTE a candidate out of a select group of 4) I said:

There’s also whispers that he’s rising too fast, and its going to his head.

I’m not at liberty to speak about private conversations I had, but I do have a few examples of these “whispers” and “problems.” Three weeks before the Indy incident, JTE’s manager Traci Thomas let him go. Traci is a well-known, amazing music manager and publicist that also works with people like The Drive By Truckers, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers. In mid June, I had interviewed the Shaker’s frontman JD Wilkes. It ended up being fine, but leading up to his appearance in Dallas, I had a hard time nailing down a confirmation that I could talk to him. This audio was cut off of the eventual interview, but this was the very first of our conversation, right after I turned on the recorder and JD had apologized for the scheduling problems:

……Listen……

JTE himself jokes in an interview with Barking Irons that, “I just finished it (a song) a couple of days ago and my management will probably get pretty mad at me for playing it here today but they do that on a regular basis, and I just smile.”

It might be an easy thing to surmise that JTE’s management has been conciliatory or even enabling of his behavior and relapse, but many of these “rumors” and “problems” were delivered in the context of JTE battling with his representation who were trying to keep his career on path and his well-being in tact.

JTE has been his own worst enemy. If anyone was conciliatory, it was the media. As JTE was descending from poor decisions, media outlets like NPR and others were canonizing him to no end, throwing ridiculous accolades his way while GQ ran multi-page spreads revering his style, possibly indirectly justifying his poor judgments. If someone was criticizing JTE’s decisions, all he had to do was point to a mountain of positive press that rarely, if ever, had a critical thing to say.

Every artist, if not every human, should appreciate and solicit criticism. And it is my job as a music critic to find the faults in music so to be fair in the critique. Even when naming Justin’s Midnight at the Movies Album of the Year I said:

This album isn’t without faults. I would second guess including a track that talks about “John Henry,” the most worn out name in country music, though I understand where he was trying to go. I’d also say that this album lacks and true, raw moxy that I would like to see from a country album. Justin does unleash a few times, but seems timid to go all the way.

In a 5 minute “review” from NPR, they could not find one critical thing to say. Not one. And in fact they suspended reality to create a storyline. I’m sure I’ve written some criticism-less reviews, but never have I left the criticism in my heart when I heard it in a project.

Many have been critical of me, for my reporting on this JTE stuff, my take of his album, my incessant ragging on NPR, my entering the fray in the comments section, and I want to take the time to say THANK YOU to all those critics. The criticism has kept me on my toes, and redoubled my efforts to be fair in my reporting, and honest in my criticism. I never claim to be perfect. I just claim to always say what is truthfully in my heart and to report the truth as best I can, regardless of what criticism it might create for me. And I always keep my opinions and truth clearly separated.

I say here often that really what I deal in around here is not music, but life; critical evaluation about the direction of our society and culture. Music is just the medium. I think this story is an excellent illustration of that. Many things can be learned from here: the effects of addiction, the need for criticism, the difficulties of celebrity in the age of information.

My honest hope is that this incident will be the best thing that has ever happened to Justin Townes Earle, and that he will emerge from this stronger, smarter, more thankful, and a better musician.

–The Triggerman.